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Why Favorite Products Vanish From Store Shelves : Marketing: There are many reasons why products disappear--ranging from low shopper acceptance to changing consumer tastes, from new technology to corporate acquisitions.

October 26, 1989|CAROLINE E. MAYER | THE WASHINGTON POST

Abracadabra, poof! Now you see it, now you don't.

Almost as fast as magic, products come and go at the supermarket. It seems like a simple fact of shopping: Grow attached to a product and before long, it will vanish from the shelves.

Take the case of Marjorie Levine. The Laurel, Md., special-education teacher discovered Ocean Spray's new carbonated fruit drink, "Splash," last March and instantly became one of its loyal buyers.

Two months later she noticed it was on sale--a clearance sale, she ultimately learned. In June, she no longer could find it on her supermarket's shelves.

"I was annoyed. I kept going to various grocery stores to see if they carried it. I couldn't believe such a great product had disappeared," she says.

Many Reasons

There are a host of reasons why products become extinct--ranging from low shopper acceptance to changing consumer tastes to new technology. Even the recent rash of corporate acquisitions has led to the demise of many popular products.

And frequently, as was the case with Splash, the product is merely a test to see how consumers respond. Introduced and tested, the product may never see daylight again.

Splash was introduced in the spring of 1988 in five cities around the country, only to be pulled a year later "to rework the flavors," says John Lawlor, Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.'s manager of public relations.

"The concept was well accepted, but consumers said the flavor combinations--particularly the 'Peach 'N Passion'--were not what they associated with Ocean Spray." The company is planning to reintroduce a new version of Splash early next year--with more cranberry blends, of course.

In Record Numbers

Whatever the cause, marketing experts say items both old and new are being pulled off the shelves in record numbers.

"Products are coming and going from the supermarket much more rapidly than they did five years ago," says Marlene Johnson, manager of product communication for Pillsbury Co.

The reason lies largely in the number of new products--more than 10,000--that are introduced annually. "In this day and age, with the physical constraints of shelf space, one item goes out for every item that goes in," says supermarket consultant Willard Bishop.

"Generally, if it doesn't sell," it goes, says David Hackney, public relations manager for Campbell Soup Co.

Campbell recently dropped its gazpacho condensed soup because of low sales. Campbell thought the soup, which was introduced five years ago, would "lend itself well to the growing interest in Mexican and Spanish food," Hackney explains. "But not enough people were buying it; people had a perception problem" with eating gazpacho that came in a can.

Distribution Problems Too

It was a distribution problem, however, that led to Campbell's decision two years ago to halt production of its Fresh Chef line of refrigerated sauces, salads and soups.

Campbell shipped Fresh Chef the same way it sent its canned soups to the grocery stores. First, the product was sent to a supermarket warehouse; then it was trucked by the chain to a store's back room, where Fresh Chef sat until it could be stocked in the refrigerated case. This process "could take as long as 30 days," Hackney recalls. "And for a product that has only 40 days of shelf life, by the time it hit the shelf, it was so close to the expiration date consumers wouldn't buy it."

Although Campbell lost more than $20 million on Fresh Chef, the company today is again testing the fresh, refrigerated concept--complete with a new distribution system--on a more limited scale under the name Fresh Kitchens.

Competition also has led to the demise of many a popular product. Remember Chipwich, the upscale ice-cream sandwich wrapped between two chocolate-chip cookies? Introduced in 1981, it was an immediate hit--so much so that many other companies rushed to create rival adult-novelty ice-cream products, recalls Chipwich president Sam Metzger.

Unfortunately, Metzger adds, most of these companies were giant food manufacturers that not only could afford the large advertising campaigns, but could also offer large discounts to encourage supermarkets to carry their products. "We couldn't afford it," Metzger says.

Gradual Reappearance

So in 1984, Chipwich was dropped from the supermarkets, with the company's targeting sales instead to restaurants, ballparks and small mom-and-pop stores. Only recently, under new agreements with supermarkets, has Chipwich begun gradually reappearing in grocery stores.

Ice-cream products in particular seem to come and go in rapid fashion, thanks to the rapidly changing tastes of the American consumer. "We are a fickle nation, and with our affluence we can afford to be," says Ronald C. Curhan, professor of marketing at Boston University's School of Management.

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